I’m Reading: Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo

Andrew’s bond with his best friend Eddie was deeper than blood or friendship, rooted in deep magic and deeper secrets. When Andrew gets word of Eddie’s apparent suicide, it tears Andrew’s whole world apart. He’s drawn back to Nashville to piece together Eddie’s last days, certain that there’s more to the death than he’s been told.

I’m picky about gothics. Not because I’m somehow an expert in the genre, but specifically because I’m not. So my favorite gothics tend to be contemporary genre crossovers with accessible writing style, vivid characters, and a strong sense of place.

Summer Sons just clicked for me. It is a slow, dark, languid dive into the Appalachians. We walk the line of social tension between the elite and the back woods, old South generational wealth and generational curses, ivory towers and street racers, queer masculinity and violence.

What I love best about Summer Sons, besides the sheer craftsmanship, is the handling of ghosts. Andrew’s powers and affinity for the dead are woven tightly into the story, heavy with dread and metaphor. There is no friendly Casper guiding the MC gently to a life lesson. The ghosts are visceral, angry, and dangerous, seducing Andrew into a spiral of his own self-destruction.

But the craftsmanship! I simultaneously disliked every single character, yet wanted to really dive into in their head and rooted for their redemption. The author pulled me into scenes and hobbies I had no interest in and made me care. The characters made terrible, toxic, self-loathing, and self-pitying decisions, but made me understand and sympathize. It is the kind of story that lingers for hours once you close the book, like the taste of coffee after you drink. It’s not the kind of book you take to the beach for a light summer read.

It’s the kind of book that haunts you.

To find a copy of Summer Sons visit the author’s website at https://leemandelo.com/

Content warnings for suicide, alcoholism, drug use, graphic violence, supernatural horror, and homophobia.

I’m Reading: The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun

Dev Deshpande makes happy-ever-afters happen. As a producer on the top reality dating show, his specialty is crafting a story of true love, even when his own love life crashes and burns.

But this season’s bachelor, tech genius Charlie Winshaw, is a disaster. Stiff, awkward, picky, and anxious, he’s as far from prince charming material as the show has ever seen. Worse, he doesn’t even believe in love—he’s only on the show to rehabiliate his image.

Dev’s mission is to get Charlie to open up, relax, and give love a chance with the women vying to be chosen as his princess. But the more Charlie opens up, the more they realize he has better chemistry with Dev than the 20 women he’s supposed to choose a wife from. The two men are faced with a high-stakes choice: Go along with the illusion and save both their careers, or challenge everyone’s assumptions of who deserves a happy-ever-after.

This is one of those rare and precious cinnamon-roll love stories that make my heart sing, because the author does not confuse cinnamon-roll with passive or feminine. Charlie is strong, loyal, physical, and willing to fight for what he wants. He’s just also soft, sweet, anxious, and wounded by a world that refuses to see him. With OCD and panic disorder, his biggest struggle is internal; he must take off the mask that he’s worked so hard to make, because he assumed he had to meet the expectations of others to deserve happiness.

Dev and Charlie’s dynamic is reminiscent of Alex and Henry in Red, White, and Royal Blue. Dev has the same frenetic energy and wild charm, balanced by Charlie’s wounded softness. It’s a dynamic that works well, lending itself to adorable squee moments and outrageous, witty banter. The writing craft is strong from the line-level on up, the pacing well-balanced, and the secondary characters are ones we want to see center-stage in their own stories. This one is definitely going in my re-read pile.

Look and ask for The Charm Offensive at your local library, or visit the author’s website at https://www.alisoncochrun.com/ for purchasing options and upcoming titles!

I’m Reading: Weather Girl by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Ari Abram’s dream is to be a meteorologist, and counts herself lucky to work with her childhood hero, the ever calm and cheerful Torrance Hale at KSEA 6 in Seattle. But instead of the close relationship with her mentor she’d craved, she spends most of her time trying to defuse shouting matches and petty fights between Torrance and her divorced husband, the news director.

Desperate, she teams up with cinnamon roll sports reporter Russell Barringer to play matchmaker. If they can make their bosses fall in love again, it will make everyone’s lives easier at KSEA 6. But Ari wasn’t planning to fall in love herself. It would mean letting someone see past the sunshine girl, into the darkness beneath.

My favorite romances have both elements of light, funny, wholesome squish and tackle darker themes of identity and self-growth to keep it real and grounded. Weather Girl is a great blend, with the refreshing bonus of a sexy-sweet fat male lead, Jewish characters, blending families, and a twist that is as surprising as it is satisfying. I love the exploration of generational trauma relieved by laugh-out-loud dialogue. The author is also a master of steam, putting more panting sexual tension into a casual brush of skin than some books pack into an entire sex scene. There are, of course, also a few sex scenes, so lovers of extra chili peppers will enjoy this book.

Please be aware that the book deals with depression and mental health, childhood emotional trauma, and inpatient mental health in a respectful, accurate way. It addresses issues that don’t get discussed often enough, like the effect of medication on sex drive, the reality of bad days even on well-managed symptoms, and processing forgiveness as an option instead of an obligation. It’s real, but so are the good moments, the vulnerability, and the happy-ever-after.

Visit the author’s website at http://www.rachelsolomonbooks.com/ to find a copy of Weather Girl, or request it at your local library.

I’m Reading: Crunching Her Numbers by Mia Sivan

I had the pleasure of beta-reading this book, and I love the author’s vision for it. I also received an ARC copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. I can honestly recommend it to any steamy contemporary romance reader.

The Tel Aviv financial world is a world of men. Kelly, an investment manager and Argentinian immigrant, must be twice as good and twice as tough to hold her position at the top. That’s fine with her. After all, she’s happy, rich, and really only needs a man for one thing. It seems like the ideal solution to take up an affair with her younger Russian masseur, Slava. Sweet, romantic Slava is head-over-heels for Kelly, but she’s clear at the beginning that there will be no happy-ever-after—no matter how good he looks kneeling at her feet.

Illan is a private investigator working for the Israeli Securities Agency to uncover a massive market manipulation scheme. He needs Kelly’s help, but her whistleblowing and cooperating with the ISA could risk everything she’d worked for. He asks that he trust her not just with her career, but with her pleasure, and her deepest vulnerabilities. When he asks her to give up Slava, though, she finds that no-strings doesn’t mean easy to let go.

This is a bit of a break from my recent Romcom streak, although the author does bring some lighthearted moments to balance the serious circumstances and stakes. Sivan brings the diverse city of Tel Aviv to life as a backdrop to this steamy romance about financial trading scandals, intrigue, and the global immigrant experience. With well-researched and realistic BDSM and polyamory rep, this story brings the heat in a big way. But it also makes the complex world of financial trading and investigation accessible and interesting to readers with no background in finance. The characters are beautifully developed, with unique voices that jump off the page. We see them all as real people in their different strengths and vulnerabilities, and root for all three right to the very end.

Follow Mia Sivan on her Amazon Author Page for Crunching Her Numbers and upcoming releases.

I’m Reading: Just Haven’t Met You Yet by Sophie Cousens

Laura is a hopeless romantic and professional meet-cute reporter. Her own parents’ story of being brought together by a broken antique coin across the sea has set high standards for her love life, and she’s not about to settle for less than epic romance.

As she travels to the island of Jersey to trace her parents’ romantic footsteps for a story, her luggage gets switched at the airport. The contents of the mystery suitcase convinces her that the owner is the man of her dreams and she must find him to fulfill very own meet-cute. But as she tracks him down with the help of a surly cab driver and rediscovers her island roots, she uncovers family secrets that threaten to unravel her belief in happy ever after.

For me this romcom had the perfect balance of serious, funny, wholesome and whimsical to draw me right in. There are clever nods and twists to genre tropes and reader expectations that made the story fresh, and a light touch on the history of the island that captures the heart of the place without feeling that we’re being lectured on a school trip.

The plot threads get a little meandering at the end, but the dynamic characters carry it through with a well-constructed twist. The resolution is deeply satisfying all around, and the light touch makes this a great, cozy, curl up on the beach, escapist kind of read, with more laughter than tears, and all the warmth of a good cuppa with friends.

Visit the author’s page at https://www.sophiecousens.com/ to buy this book, or request it at your local library!

I’m Reading: Finlay Donovan is Killing It by Elle Cosimano

Finlay Donovan’s life is a complete mess. Her newly ex husband fired the nanny without telling her, she’s behind on the bills, the book she desperately needs to finish to cover the mortgage is past due (and barely started), and her kid chose this morning to cut her own hair before school, then insists on fixing it with duct tape.

But then a woman at Panera overhears Finlay and her agent discussing the overdue murder mystery, and mistakes the stressed-out single mom for a contract killer. Finlay finds a note in her purse with a name and an offer that would solve a large chunk of her problems: fifty thousand dollars.

What could go wrong?

Elle Cosimano brings us an unapologetically campy romp of a mystery novel. It’s real, refreshing, and hilarious, but with hidden sophisticated depths and empathy.

The writing craft is exceptional and the combination of feminist lens and sharp wit put this in an entirely different class of mystery. The hijinks and fast pacing give it a cinematic, summer blockbuster feel (and lets hope this catches Hollywood’s eye!)

I like that the platonic female friendships in the book overshadowed the romance threads. The latter were a little underdeveloped. Then again this is a woman who is working her butt off to figure out who she is and where she’s going professionally and personally, and the men just need to take a back seat until she figures it out. Character-wise, the women in this book really stand out as vivid, strong individuals with their own personalities, and their dialogue is particularly strong.

But I’m here for the weirdness of laugh-out-loud funny, surprise twists, and, of course, the murders. The sequel is already on my order list.

Check your local library, or find out more about the author’s work at https://www.ellecosimano.com/

I’m Reading: Get a Life, Chloe Brown, by Talia Hibbert

Chloe Brown is a chronically ill web designer who wants to experience life away from the hovering and smothering care of her family. So she gets an apartment and makes a list: Do something bad, ride a motorcycle, go camping, enjoy a drunken night out, have meaningless but enjoyable sex, and travel the world with nothing but hand luggage. But being chronically ill makes it tough to make friends to do bad things with. Not friends she can trust to stick around on bad days, through broken plans and physical limitations. Leave it to the grumpy, impossibly sexy handyman, Red, who secretly paints beautiful art at night and resents Chloe’s wealthy upbringing, to be the one to help her get a life. He doesn’t know that Chloe has already done her “something bad,” by way of spying on him at night through the curtains. But as he sticks around through thick and thin and helps her check off more of her missed experiences, she must decide if she can take the biggest risk of all; adding him to her list.

“Keep Red.”

This is the first in Talia Hibbert’s Brown Sisters series, and it pulled me in immediately with vivid characters, humor, a perfect balance of sweetness and steam, and beautiful writing craft. I immediately blew my entire monthly book budget on her back catalog and haven’t been able to stop reading since. This series marks her leap from Indie to traditional publishing, and you can see why she caught an agent’s eye. She balances witty hilarity with a rich, lyrical voice and captures beautiful scenes with a few evocative brushstrokes. Her men have emotional intelligence, her families are loving but imperfect, her characters are beautifully rounded, and her steam is so hot it should come with burn cautions. Overall, I would put Hibbert right up in my top 5 favorite re-readable authors and platonic author crushes.

I wholeheartedly recommend you check your local library for Talia Hibbert’s books, or visit the author’s website at https://www.taliahibbert.com/

I’m Reading: So Not My Thing by Melanie Jacobson

Elle Jones has learned the hard way that the Internet is forever. After a humiliating teenage rejection by her pop star crush went viral, it threatened to follow her forever. But she regrouped and rebuilt. She’s now on track to a wildly successful career in New Orleans real estate…until the man who wrecked her life walks through the door. Miles Crowe doesn’t recognize her when he asks her to help him find the perfect spot for his new jazz club. She plans to make him fire her as quickly as possible, before he learns the truth and makes her re-live her teenage humiliation all over again.

I’ll admit to being a sucker for enemies to lovers. There’s something about this classic romance trope that gets to me. Maybe it’s the idea of people actually growing and changing, or maybe it’s the best example of love conquering all. Or, you know, it could just be that the witty competitive banter is usually so dang sexy.

At any rate, Melanie Jacobson does it just right. So Not My Thing is smart romance. The conflict is real, as is the past hurt. The characters are deliciously competent at what they do. Both have actual, nuanced flaws, and have to do the work on themselves and grow as people to get what they want. The stakes are highly personal, which for me are the best kind of stakes. The world won’t end if they fail, but they’ll be better people if they succeed.

The city of New Orleans is itself a richly developed secondary character in the book, and one we fall in love with. Reading this makes me crave the place, but not just to visit. I want to belong to the place like Elle does, have her deep roots and connection to the community. It’s woven into both main characters’ identities as part of the story itself, not just a backdrop. You couldn’t transplant these people and conflicts to any other place and have it make sense. It has to be New Orleans.

If I have one complaint, it’s that I would have liked an epilogue. I know they’re not everybody’s jam, but I like to spend a little time with the characters after an emotionally tense ending, to wind down and transition back to real life. It’s like pillow talk for the soul. I particularly miss that transition when I’m invested in the people and their happiness.

But I am invested, which is why I can recommend this book. The people, the music, the lives and relationships all come together in a place I’m hungry to spend more time in. My preference for romance usually runs high-steam, but this author packs more sensual tension into a kiss than others do in entire on-page sex scenes. All that adds up to a place in my re-reads for this book. I suspect the same will be true for the rest of the author’s catalog.

For more information on So Not My Thing and Melanie Jacobson’s other works, visit the author’s website at https://www.melaniejacobson.net/

I’m Reading: The Spanish Love Deception by Elena Armas

Catalina Martín has a problem. When she discovered that her newly-engaged ex would be best man at her sister’s wedding in Spain, she may have accidently let slip that she would be bringing a date. Not just a date, though, a boyfriend. A handsome, charming, non-existent boyfriend. It was that or showing up single (again) and playing the poor pitiful sad girl (again.)

As W-Day draws near, Catalina must consider taking the offer of a date from the last man on earth she would willingly spend time with. Her fellow engineer Aaron is a humorless, soulless asshole who lives to make her miserable. It’s out of the question. She doesn’t even know why he offered, except maybe to mess with her. Why would a man who hates her guts want to fly to Spain to pretend to be her boyfriend?

And why, as the sparks fly and his touch lights up her body, does it feel less and less like pretend?

The Spanish Love Deception is everything I’m looking for in a feel-good, enemies-to-lovers romcom. It’s witty, quirky, and steamy. The characters are sharp, the secondary story meaningful, and the sexual tension is through the roof. The writing craft is solid, and while I would describe it as The Proposal meets The Hating Game meets telenovelas, the voice, the heart, and the nicely balanced classic romance tropes makes this book a phenomenon all its own.

(Minor spoiler alert)

My one complaint about this book is that Aaron joins the company after Lina, in the same role, yet he is being promoted ahead of her. The author isn’t shy about other elements of workplace discrimination, but this doesn’t even seem to show up on the characters’ radars. If she’s a highly competent engineer and team leader who has been there longer, why wasn’t she considered for the promotion? A company would normally post the position internally and interview applicants, not just pluck someone from the team arbitrarily to promote. Why would HR allow this, and why doesn’t Catalina fight it, or at least resent it? If Aaron is simply better for the job, I feel that the author needed to sell me on it more. I feel like this should have been caught by beta readers, at least.

***End Spoiler Alert***

But that is me being SUPER PICKY about an otherwise great book that I got very invested in reading. The rest of the story is solid. We get some of my absolute favorite romance tropes (Fake relationship feels all too real! Then grumpy one is soft for the sunshine one! and THERE’S ONLY ONE BED!). The romance is swoon-worthy, and the characters are real people you want to spend more time with.

This amazing debut goes on my re-read list, and I’m eagerly awaiting the chance to read more from Elena Armas!

Visit the author online at https://www.authorelenaarmas.com/

All the World’s a Stage…And your Characters Should Act Like it!

Technically a lot of things make up a really good book.  But as a reader, I will forgive an author many plot and style problems.  The one thing I can’t get past is the characters.  Good characters can make an atrociously bad premise readable.  Bad characters can render the most meticulous world-building pointless.

The thing is, as writer, you are the director.  You move all of the pieces of the script, scenery and players around to make sure everyone’s in the right place at the right time for the right effect.  But to really get into your characters’ heads and bring them alive on the page, you can’t think like a director.  You have to think like an actor.  Specifically, an improvisational theater actor.

Any actor, but especially an improv actor, has to have a highly refined sense of timing, place, position, and body language.  They understand the effect of every movement and word they speak.  They know that the position of the shoulders can change a character’s entire message.  That’s something you, as a writer, need to know.

Luckily for those of us with intense stage fright, there’s no need to run out and join an improv acting class.  Instructional books and videos abound.  But my favorite of all time is a classic on which many other books and classes are built.  Impro, by Keith Johnstone, and the sequel, Impro for Storytellers, may be edging on forty years old (as reflected in the sometimes problematic language), but they could give an extraordinary boost to your character craft.

EXAMPLES

There’s more packed into the books than can possibly be summarized, but here are three examples I use to inform my own characterizations:

Status

Impro focuses a lot on status, because a lot of our understanding of interactions comes from the status games we’re observing.  There are two relevant features in any interaction between people in your writing.  The first is the person’s actual social status.  Are they a king? An outcast?  A woman in a patriarchal society?  The second is the status the person is playing.  We often consider characters or dialogue more interesting when these two don’t match.  A king who acts as a servant and a servant who acts like a king are more interesting than the inverse.

Blocking

Impro for Storytellers devotes a lot of time to things people do that slow or stop the progression of the story.  One of those things is called “blocking.”  It can be dialogue, action, or even body language that rejects or kills a start made by another character.  For example, a character invites their friend swimming, and the friend says they don’t feel like it.  You may have used the moment to create tension (i.e. to show they’re angry in refusing the invitation) but the action, the progress of the story has stopped, and the second character has attempted to gain control of the conversation.  This can be used constructively, but only if done deliberately, with awareness of the underlying dynamics of control.

Originality

In both books, Johnstone is quick to condemn attempts at “originality.”  A person who is trying to be original and clever will end up responding slowly and unnaturally.  In reality the first thought that comes to mind, even if it seems boring, is probably the correct response.  An example from Impro is of an actor being asked, “What’s for supper?”

“…a bad improviser will desperately try to think up something original. Whatever he says he’ll be too slow.  He’ll finally drag up some idea like ‘fried mermaid’. If he’d just said ‘fish’ the audience would have been delighted. No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears.”

Your characters are the same way, and will show themselves better and more naturally in unforced interactions than in any attempt to be clever and original.

(Note that I am not adding an ordering link to the books, because they are only available in limited print. It’s worth a bit of hunting to find a cheap used copy of both, rather than pay the collector prices for new copies on Amazon).